A court ruling banning women with high testosterone from running in certain track events is confusing and arbitrary
The highest court in international sports just issued a ruling that says women who have testosterone measuring higher than an “acceptable” level must either stop competing in certain track events, or take drugs to suppress their testosterone. Buckle in, because there is so much wrong with this.
The ruling is a response to years of controversy that has surrounded South African runner Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters. According to The New York Times, Semenya was born intersex, a characterization for people who are born with reproductive or physical anatomy that doesn’t perfectly fit the typical definitions of male or female. However, Semenya has identified as female for her entire life, and she has competed in women’s sports for just as long.
The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sports’ ruling says that women whose testosterone reads more than five nanomoles per liter will now be barred from competing in certain women’s events at elite competitions, like the Olympics. The Court admitted that its 2-1 decision was discriminatory, but said this particular discrimination was a “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means” of “preserving the integrity of female competition.”
OK, deep breath to calm down, and then we’re going to dive into all the myriad reasons why this is ridiculous.
First of all, the science on whether elevated testosterone gives women an extra advantage in sports is actually pretty unclear. There have been studies that came to conclusions on either side of the issue, so this is by no means settled. It has absolutely not been proven that higher levels of testosterone can give a woman an advantage over other women with lower levels.
Second, the idea that female athletes who fall outside of this “acceptable” range will now be asked to medically suppress their testosterone in order to compete is dangerous and unreasonable. Subjecting anyone to unnecessary medication that could come with harmful side effects is, frankly, inhumane. And then there’s the fact that even with medication, hormone levels can easily fluctuate, and athletes may struggle to keep their testosterone within the acceptable range, even with medication. That’s a real hardship that will get in the way of athletes’ ability to compete, and it’s not fair for them to have to jump through those hoops just to keep competing.
And, finally, let’s just think about how sports and competition work. Some people have an edge over their competition because they’ve put in more practice hours, sure. But some people just have that edge because our bodies are not all identical, and theirs are better built for the sport. If we’re going to ban Semenya from running because she has more testosterone than her competition, are we going to ban Michael Phelps from swimming because he has long arms and big feet? If runners will be required to medicate themselves to keep their hormones within an acceptable range, should basketball players intentionally stunt their growth to level the playing field for shorter players? Sometimes champions win because they have a biological advantage that they were born with. To single out Semenya because hers is something certain people refuse to empathize with is unfair, and unsportsmanlike.
To her credit, Semenya has handled all of this with remarkable grace, and she plans to continue to fight the ruling.
“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born,” she said last year. “It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”
She’s right, and that’s why this ruling is wrong.